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Psyche, Eros, and Controlling Mother-in-Law Aphrodite
Psyche and Eros
Eros Falls in Love with Psyche
The goddess in Greek mythology most known for both love and astonishing beauty was Aphrodite. She attracted males who were gods and men who were mortals. But there came a time when a mortal woman named Psyche was gaining attention for being even more stunning than Aphrodite. As Psyche was getting noticed and talked about more and more, Aphrodite was angered, not ready to give up her reputation as the fairest woman in the land.
Her son Eros (known also as Cupid in Roman), had magical golden arrows, and in a fit of jealousy, Aphrodite begged him to shoot poor Psyche with one of them. By accommodating this wish, he would put a spell on Psyche, so that she would fall in love with the most hideous monster she laid eyes upon after being shot by this arrow. Eros set off upon this mission with the intent of carrying out his mother’s wishes. But when he saw how lovely Psyche was, he could not find it in his heart to do as Aphrodite asked of him. Eros fell in love with Psyche at first sight, and knew then he wanted her to be his wife.
The Oracle at Delphi Declares Psyche's Future
Young Psyche was getting to be of marriageable age, and her father visited the Oracle at Delphi, who informed him that his daughter would never marry just any ordinary man, but a godlike creature; one could fly through the starry skies with wings, and have powers almost equal to those of Zeus. Psyche’s father, the King, was told he must take his daughter to a nearby top of a mountain, and leave her there, until the mystical winds would carry her to the home of her chosen husband.
Although Psyche’s father had concerns, he was obliged to carry out the plan of the Oracle. The next day, Psyche, her father and mother, and her two sisters hiked up to the mountain top. They cried as they said goodbye, but left a scared and lonely Psyche at this spot all by herself. Soon after they left though, Psyche felt herself lifted into the air by a breeze, which gently carried her very far away, to a beautiful palace.
It was decorated in gold, silver, and precious, colorful gems, and made of the finest marble. When Psyche looked inside, she could see that an elaborate feast was already set upon the dining table, but she saw no guests. She sat down, and shortly afterward invisible servants started to attend to her, whispering in soft voices that Psyche was now the mistress of this palace, and that all inside it belonged to her now.
Psyche and Eros Have a Misunderstanding
Her husband came to Psyche that night, but it was dark and she was unable to see his face. However, he spoke softly and sweetly to her, and acted so kind and gentle, that Psyche decided she loved him within a short period of time. There were rules though, Psyche’s new husband told her that she must never try to see his face, or he would have to leave her. Now that she had a sweet taste of love, Psyche did not want to return to a life of loneliness. She agreed to live under this set of circumstances, but within time she began to miss her sisters, and asked Eros if they could come to visit her. He told her that it would be problematic, but was so in love with Psyche he did not want to deny her anything, so honored her request.
Psyche’s sisters would travel to the mountain top each day and cry because they missed her so much. So they got a surprise when one day the wind lifted them up, and delivered them safely to the castle where Psyche and Eros lived. The gorgeous castle and all the wealth that surrounded Psyche made them feel jealousy towards her, especially when they learned that Psyche had a husband now as well. They peppered her with so many questions about her husband, that Psyche began getting her stories mixed up. Once she said he had dark hair, in another anecdote she said he had blond hair. She could not admit she had never seen his face, but finally after their relentless interrogation, Psyche told them the truth.
The sisters reminded Psyche of the Oracle’s prediction to their father, and convinced the poor girl that her husband was likely a horrible looking monster who would eat her as soon as he tired of her, and find another wife. Together they hatched a plan, made sure Psyche had a dagger and an oil lamp, and instructed her that she must get a look at her husband’s face while he was asleep. If he was truly as awful as they expected, Psyche’s only choice would be to use the dagger to kill him. When Psyche saw what a handsome man he was, the shock caused her hands to shake, and she dropped a bit of oil onto the shoulder of the sleeping Eros, which awoke him at once. When he realized Psyche disobeyed his orders, he said in sadness, “Where there is not trust, there cannot be love”, then got up and left the palace.
Angry Aphrodite Assigned Difficult Tasks to Psyche
When Aphrodite realized that her son had disobeyed her, she took out all her anger on Psyche. She searched her out, and was determined to make her miserable. Aphrodite gave Psyche four very difficult tasks to complete, designed to make the terrified young woman suffer. But she was unaware that Eros was watching from afar, and giving Psyche help with his special powers.
Aphrodite dumped a huge pile of many types of seeds into a great heap, and ordered Psyche to separate them and sort them into piles by individual type. This had to be finished by sundown. Psyche knew this was impossible. But soon a big army of ants arrived, and scurrying back and forth, completed this task after all! Aphrodite was infuriated when she came back to find this task done, and determined to make the next one even harder.
Aphrodite commanded that Psyche collect wool for a golden fleece from a group of fierce, man-eating beasts, who lived near a thicket of thorn bushes. Psyche was terrified that these wild beasts would tear her apart, and that it was certain death to get too close to the animals. But the voice of a lovely green tree told Psyche to wait until dusk, when the animals got tired. Then they would leave the thicket to sleep, making it easier for Psyche to take the wool that was stuck in the thorns. Once again Psyche completed what seemed impossible, and once again Aphrodite was furious.
Next, Aphrodite shoved a crystal flask into Psyche’s hands for the third task. She told Psyche that she must fill the flask with water from a strong and fast running steam, one which cascaded from a mountain summit, headed into the Underworld, and then came out from the Earth in the form of a spring. Psyche was terrified as she observed the icy stream, which fell from a steep cliff guarded by dragons. But sure enough, an eagle arrived just in time to help Psyche fill the flask.
Psyche and Cupid (Eros)
Psyche and Eros Live Happily Ever After
The fourth task Aphrodite demands of Psyche is for her to descend into the Underworld, to fill an empty box with beauty ointments and makeup for her. Psyche is exhausted and sure that this last task will be the one which kills her. Psyche has been told that many pathetic people will beg for her help, and no matter how sympathetic she feels, she must say “no” to all their pleas. It is so hard for sweet Psyche to do this. But she does brace herself, and learns to say “no” when it is necessary.
In the meantime, Zeus is fed up with all this nonsense, and he is aware that Eros loves Psyche, and that Psyche loves Eros. Psyche has proven she has devotion, patience and obedience. The problem is that Eros has chosen a mortal for his bride, and no mortal can live on Mount Olympus. This is an easy issue for Zeus to deal with, and he grants immortality to Psyche when she drinks the ambrosial nectar of the gods. Apparently the main reason Aphrodite was so upset was because she thought her son Eros deserved to marry royalty, that no mortal should be able to rival the gods. Aphrodite finally gave her blessing to Psyche and Eros, pleased that her son found a beautiful princess who had now become one of the immortals.
What Purpose Do the Tasks Serve For Psyche?
Many people are familiar with this story as Beauty and the Beast. But the Psyche myth is a metaphor for psychological growth, according to Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, in The Goddess in Every Woman. Many women find their mothers-in-law to be intimidating, when all they are trying to do is teach a young bride the lessons of capability that a woman needs to develop. Think about the sorting of the seeds. When a woman needs to make a very difficult decision, and has conflicting feelings and loyalties, what can she do? She must look inward, and take an honest look at herself. She must evaluate her motives, feelings and values. Then she can separate what is really important in her life from what is insignificant. It is never wise to act until one can clarify their feelings.
Why does Aphrodite ask Psyche to fetch the golden fleece? The fleece represents power, which a woman must learn to acquire. It can be hard for a young woman to assert herself when she goes out into the world, and she can easily be hurt and disillusioned by life. But Psyche was able to gain power, and still be a compassionate person. A quiet woman like her does better by observing, waiting, and gradually accepting power.
What about the filling of the flask? The water which cascaded down the steep mountain side, went to the depth of the Underworld, and then emerged back up through Earth in the form of a gentle spring represents the circle of life, and Psyche has to dip into it. Everyone must do this. An eagle comes to help her, because an eagle is high in the sky and can see from a different perspective.
Many women do not do this, as they tend to get emotionally involved when making decisions. Psyche learns that it is important to get some emotional distance in her relationships, so she can pick out the important details, to grasp what is truly significant. She will learn from this experience the shape and form her life will take.
Why does Psyche have to learn to say “no”? This is very hard for many women. The test is not only one of determination and courage, as it seemed when Psyche went to the Underworld. Many women allow themselves to be constantly imposed upon and diverted from tasks that are meaningful to them.
They feel guilty saying “no”, even if it means they overdo it so much they keep getting sick from taking on too many responsibilities. Even those we love will take advantage of our kindnesses if we let them. Psyche learned to exercise choice. Until a woman begins to prioritize her own needs, she will continue to let others impose upon her and ignore her own dreams. Then she will be angry at herself because she does so. This may be the hardest lesson for many women to learn, but learn it they must.
So Aphrodite was not just trying to give Psyche a hard time. Her son already loved and married Psyche. Once the issue of immortality was worked out, Aphrodite had no problems with Psyche at all. She was only trying to teach her what every woman must learn at one time or another. So the next time it seems one is faced with a critical mother-in-law, try not to take it so hard. Maybe she truly has your best interests at heart, and is only trying to teach you what she had to learn the hard way. Even though a young maiden may think a mother in law is jealous of her new relationship with someone's son, many young men's mothers know their own sons better than a young woman in love. Sometimes they even love their new daughter in law, but want to help her see she needs to have boundaries, even with her beloved!
© 2012 Jean Bakula